The seeds of Ohio State’s new-look defense were sown in the Swamp, where a young Ryan Day first met the coach whose attack-the-quarterback system Day wanted brought to the Buckeyes 14 years later.
As Day, the newly minted replacement for Urban Meyer, set out to assemble his staff, he turned to a Michigan Man to shore up a defense that allowed the most points and yards per game in Ohio State history.
It wasn’t just what Greg Mattison was doing as the defensive line coach with the Wolverines — they ranked No. 2 nationally in total defense last season — but what Day recalled of Mattison’s methods from their one season together at Florida under Meyer in 2005. Day was a graduate assistant and Mattison the Gators’ co-defensive coordinator and line coach.
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“I was pretty impressionable at that point,” Day said Friday. “I was probably 23 or 24 years old and that was the year I got married, in 2005, and I remember it pretty clearly.”
Ah, yes, who can forget that first year of marriage? Discovering the person you thought you knew was not exactly the person you thought you knew. Interesting revelations concerning personal time and where that certain someone ranks on the slob-o-meter. And that newlywed tradition of drawing up plays on placemats while your bride is in the powder room.
It was during Day’s first honeymoon period that he saw Mattison as a steadying influence. The feeling has not changed as he enjoys his honeymoon period with the Buckeyes.
“He has that mentor feel, where you look to him for advice,” Day said of his co-defensive coordinator. “He’s been around for a long time, seen a lot of football and has a lot of wisdom.”
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Mattison has been paying attention to Day, too. He first sized up the young graduate assistant and liked what he saw, then became even more impressed as Day moved up the coaching ranks.
“When you’ve coached as long as I have you get a lot who come through the door,” Mattison said. “Some of them you look at and you go, ‘Oh, really?’ But I remember the first day I thought, ‘Where is this kid from?’ He was so mature, so way ahead of his time.”
Jumping way ahead, an even more mature Day decided in January he wanted Mattison to install a simpler yet more attacking defensive scheme.
Something wasn’t right last season. Former defensive coordinator Greg Schiano appeared to overcomplicate the defense, at least for the level of talent. It was as if Schiano reverted to his previous stint as an NFL coach, expecting college players to perform like pros.
Mattison also has NFL experience — as do Day and co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley — but at age 69 has weathered a career long enough that any obvious “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude left the building years ago.
That said, it will be interesting to watch how Mattison interacts with defensive line coach Larry Johnson, 67, who is considered one of the best in the business. Everything is hugs and platitudes at the moment, but coaches meetings are not for the meek. There will be squabbles, which usually are healthy but can turn divisive. Egos emerge. The challenge is keeping them in check.
Day sees little potential for problems, but to make sure he is having coaches jot down what they consider to be their purpose.
“When you’re unselfish and want to sacrifice for others, that’s when something special can happen,” he said, referring to both coaches and players.
Part of Mattison’s purpose is coordinating the defensive coaches.
“When he speaks, people listen,” Day said. “For everybody on our staff and on defense, they look to him as a steadying force. When we had an opportunity to get him, that was important for us.”
Listening to Day, it may even have been essential.